The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether specific Marcellus Shale drilling and compressor station operations in Washington County have caused environmental damage that violates federal regulations.
The federal "multi-media" investigation of air, water and hazardous materials impacts, which the EPA has not previously acknowledged, began in late September when on-site testing was done and is the initial stage of a possible enforcement action or actions.
"In Washington County, EPA has conducted inspections at active industrial operations including well pads and compressor stations," Terri White, an EPA spokeswoman at the agency's Philadelphia regional office, said in an email response to questions last week.
"The EPA is assessing the findings of our air, water and hazardous waste investigations in Washington County," said Bonnie Smith, another EPA spokeswoman in Philadelphia, who noted that the agency will not disclose the names of the facility or facilities where testing has been done until the investigation is complete, and that's expected to take "several more months."
Washington County, just south of Pittsburgh, is a hotbed of Marcellus Shale gas development in southwestern Pennsylvania and has more wells and compressor stations, which pump natural gas through pipelines, than any other county in the region.
According to the latest accounting on the state Department of Environmental Protection's Oil & Gas Reporting website, there are almost 700 drilled Marcellus Shale gas wells in Washington County, and as of the middle of last year 278 of those were producing.
Although the DEP does not track compressor stations by county or region, there are at least 11 in Washington County, seven of those owned by MarkWest-Liberty Midstream & Resources LLC.
Water use and contamination has been a concern as deep gas drilling has rapidly expanded in Pennsylvania.
And emission of air pollutants by compressor stations -- including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, airborne particulates and carbon monoxide -- are measured in hundreds of tons per year and have the potential to adversely affect the state's air quality.
"Washington County was chosen for multi-media inspections because there is a significant amount of oil and natural gas development occurring there," said Ms. Smith. "While natural gas operators employ various safeguards to minimize the risks inherent to the industry, legitimate concerns have emerged regarding potential environmental impacts."
Although the EPA informed the state of the federal probe, Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman, declined to comment on it or say if the department is participating in it.
Such "multi-media" federal investigations, which assess air, water and land impacts of various operations, are not common in Pennsylvania or other states that enforce their own environmental laws. But they are a long-standing part of the EPA "tool box," Ms. Smith said.
According to the EPA program web page, multi-media investigations can target single facilities, multiple facilities owned by a single company, or geographically based environmental problems in a given area or industry.
The comprehensive enforcement approach was used in 2002 to address emissions problems nationwide from the polyvinyl chloride manufacturing industry.
In Pennsylvania, an EPA multi-media investigation in 2006 of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck & Co. in Northumberland and Montgomery counties, found company discharges violated the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and resulted in a $1.5 million civil penalty paid last year to settle the charges.
The EPA also has the legal authority to step in to supplement state enforcement, much as it did in Dimock, Susquehanna County, last month, where it is supplying replacement water and testing well water supplies in 60 homes where residents say Marcellus Shale gas drilling has contaminated their water supplies. That testing is not a "multi-media" investigation because it's focused only on water problems, but it is similar due to the federal involvement.
The EPA decided to conduct the Dimock tests after receiving water quality complaints from Dimock residents, and after the DEP allowed Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to stop supplying replacement water.
Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who has been critical of the new Marcellus legislation approved by the Legislature last week and embraced by the Corbett administration, said he was unaware of the on-going federal investigation. He welcomed it because of what he termed "lackluster" regulation by the DEP.
"There are several areas in the county where there are potential problems that might attract the EPA," Mr. White said. "DEP's regulatory efforts should be motivated by facts, not politics. The EPA isn't snooping around here for nothing."
Range Resources, which owns the vast majority of the wells in Washington County, and MarkWest Energy Partners, which owns most of the compressor stations, could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Smith said the EPA tests done in September in Washington County are not related in any way to the on-going review of drinking water resources that is part of the National Study of Hydraulic Fracturing, which has selected a Washington County location as a case study.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.